The General Accounting Office says that some ex-federal workers are illegally drawing jobless benefits because their former agencies forgot to tell the D.C. unemployment office they might be ineligible because they quit, were fired for misconduct or were retired and getting federal pensions.

In one instance, GAO auditors reported, a Labor Department employe fired for stealing $12,500 worth of government property collected nearly $3,400 in unemployment benefits because the agency that fired him didn't tell anybody his discharge was less than honorable. Neither did he!

Generally speaking, unemployment benefits are available only to persons who have lost a job through no fault of their own. Benefits, usually paid through states, are paid for by employers and the government. Currently there are 29,300 federal workers drawing unemployment benefits that will run to about $260 million this year.

At the urging of Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark), ranking minority member of the Senate Civil Service-Postal Service Subcommittee, GAO made a spot check of unemployment claims involving 246 employes in four agencies here -- Labor, Commerce, Energy and the Office of Personnel Management -- that had RIFfed (fired) workers for economy reasons.

GAO said that 107 of the former employes had been "improperly authorized" $419,000 in unemployment compensation from the District. It said the D.C. unemployment office made nearly half of the payments before it was advised that the employes were ineligible for one reason or another.

Pryor said that if other agencies are as slow or sloppy in providing correct eligibility information to other state unemployment offices, they could wind up paying $130 million in benefits to people who don't qualify for them.

GAO said that most of the problems stemmed from the Labor Department, which ironically, is reponsible for the government's unemployment compensation program.

A Labor Department official who asked not to be identified said the GAO "apparently concentrated on a known 'trouble area' " and that its "small sample" findings that nearly 50 percent of all federal unemployment compensation claims are going to people who don't deserve them "is a little off the mark."

Be that as it may, the fact that the government -- which has a small unemployment problem compared to most major American industries -- isn't getting proper eligibility information out on time indicates that some tightening of procedures may be in order.